There’s a fierce determination among elected officials and education leaders to return our schools to normal. That’s understandable, but the desire for normalcy must not compel us to settle for an education system that was struggling long before the pandemic turned “normal” on its ear.
Right now, parents have a unique and unprecedented opportunity: To emerge from this pandemic with a transformed education system, one that offers more options to families and embraces new policies that build toward reimagining the entire system. It’s incumbent on education advocates, each and every one of us, to harness the energy, frustration and needs of families to create this better education system.
Success requires eliminating the conventional us vs. them mindset. That friction is often on display between those seeking a student-centered system and advocates of the current system, but there’s often infighting among education reformers themselves. Proponents are criticized for being either too focused on incrementalism or thinking too big picture; too intent on reshaping existing systems; or too committed to overhauling everything.
Disagreements can also devolve into reformers moving into camps, rallying around their one best approach. That’s absurd because there’s no such thing. The future of education requires a diversity of thought, as well as a diversity of approaches.
That’s why I see the education work ahead of us focused on three areas, which can truly transform education from system-centered to student-centered:
1. First, fix the existing system. It’s important to improve today’s public systems, which serve the majority of students who are educated in traditional schools.
2. Second, create alternatives to the current system to expand options for all families. Educational opportunity acknowledges every child’s uniqueness, rooted in the belief that all students are deserving of access to the option that best meets their needs.
3. Third, reimagine the system. The future of education requires work today that can pave the way to new learning models, new education pathways and expanded student experiences for years to come.
Every education advocate—whatever their focus, scope, or resources—can contribute real value to one or more elements in this formula:
Fixing the existing education system—More than 50 million students attend traditional public schools across the country, so it’s where change can make a meaningful impact on the most students. Opportunities abound in local public schools and school districts and via the state policies that shape them.
With a focus on proven policies, states must first measure how students are doing to ensure each and every child is getting a high-quality education. Literacy must also be front and center. With a full third of 4th grade students reading below grade level, states need K-3 reading programs that are grounded in the science of reading. And they need strategies and resources to ensure students who struggle with reading can be identified and supported quickly.
A less visible but critical repair needed in K-12 education is student-centered funding. Funding dollars should be based on the needs of the individual student and should follow each student throughout their entire K-12 career, giving parents access to whatever schools, courses, programs, and services best meet their child’s needs.
And those needs must be served by extraordinary teachers. For example, states can take steps to expand teacher supports and professional growth, remove roadblocks to becoming a teacher, empower districts to grow their own teachers and encourage mentoring by teacher leaders. Every school in every community deserves to be staffed with high-quality teachers.
Creating alternatives to the existing system—Just as no single policy can transform education, no single school can ensure every child’s success. That’s why options are the key to unlocking each student’s full potential. After two years of academic disruption, families need—and are demanding—the freedom of options and choice to ensure their child receives a quality education tailored to their needs and gifts.
Data show that in the 2020-21 school year, public charter school enrollment grew by seven percent; NPR reported an increase in private and parochial enrollment; and between the spring of 2019 and the fall of 2021, the percentage of school-age children who were homeschooled nearly doubled.
Every state should offer public school, public charter, private school, online, and home education opportunities to every single student. Every state should offer an education scholarship account to families, with enhanced financial support to those with income challenges and children with special needs. Artificial school and district boundaries can be eliminated just as easily as they have been drawn. High-quality public charter schools can be equitably funded. We have not arrived until every parent, especially parents of kids who are most at-risk, has an option that fits their child.
Reimagining the system—The pandemic’s many challenges became fodder for big ideas in education. Even as we address historical difficulties in traditional schools and open doors to educational options, we are also finding exciting ways to reimagine the concept of schooling itself.
This requires asking core questions around what defines today’s education system: How do we define students? How do we classify educators? And, where does education take place? Challenging our predefined notions of each can unlock real possibilities for the future of education.
Students often are labeled by learning model: Homeschool student, private school student, or public school student. Challenging these constructs and labels could open doors for students to more easily flow between models and could unlock real opportunities for students to access more educational experiences. What if a district allowed an Advanced Placement teacher to serve a private school or home education co-op for part of the day? We’re already seeing some of this through modernized part-time policies.
Similarly, teachers are labeled and often confined to a singular model, but why? Why not allow teachers to have autonomy and work for themselves in partnership with families while still maintaining a state salary and benefits. Research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that educators who became “learning pod instructors” enjoyed leaving the traditional classroom while still educating students. The surveyed educators cited the freedom and flexibility of teaching in a learning pod, followed by the relationship made with students and families, as the reasons for increased satisfaction when teaching in that setting.
What if teachers could teach anywhere they chose? What if the many creative and experienced teachers who left the profession could come back as chartered teachers for a learning pod, in a microschool or to support a virtual learning space—all with the safety and support of a steady salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits?
The way I see it, we are restricted only by our imaginations. Let’s be ready and eager to give new ideas a try.
There’s real electricity in the air for transformative education policy. This is the moment for education activists to fix, expand and create an education system that is ready to meet the future. But it requires rejecting false dichotomies, rejecting the reform vs. transform notion of education policy, and recognizing that creating a better education—for every student—is a space that’s open to every student-centered idea and solution.
Patricia Levesque is the CEO of Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd).